§ 2.44 p.m.
§ Lord Hunt asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether their proposals for development of the Otterburn military training area announced by the Ministry of Defence on 23rd June will create more limitations on public access and quiet enjoyment of the Northumberland National Park than is the case at present.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)
My Lords, we are confident that our proposals for Otterburn will create no more limitations on public access or quiet enjoyment than is at present the case. However, we shall shortly be commissioning an environmental impact assessment report which will address fully the impact of those proposals. This should be complete by the end of this year, when it will be submitted to the Northumberland National Park Authority together with a notice of proposed development.
My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that Answer. In his Written Answer of 23rd June he said that the proposals originally made have been significantly refined after discussion with a firm of environmental specialists. Will he say something about what those refinements are? For example, is it not 136 inevitable that the development and use of the range on a much greater scale than at present will further restrict both the frequency and extent of public access in an area which already occupies 25 per cent of the national park? Is it not also inevitable that the noise of heavy weapons in the park will diminish quiet enjoyment by the public of this area?
Is the noble Viscount aware—I am sure that he is— that the Northumberland National Park is the only national park in England and Wales which approximates to wilderness status and whose main value is quiet enjoyment? That was recognised by the Government in their reply to the Edwards Report.
Those are my questions, but I hope that the noble Viscount will accept that, as a former professional soldier, I understand very well the need for, as well as the consequences of, training in heavy artillery and armour as part of our defence equipment.
My Lords, I understand very well that the noble Lord has extensive military experience. I wholly accept the last part of what he says.
Perhaps I may suggest to the noble Lord that one of the reasons for the wilderness being as it is—and he knows as well as I do what a wonderful place Otterburn is—is that the Army has been the guardian of that wilderness at a time when large sections of wilderness have been subject to the depredations of that ugly beast, man.
In relation to access, I know that the noble Lord is also aware of the considerable efforts that we have made, not only at Otterburn but elsewhere, to emphasise our policy of public access so long as it is consistent with military operations and, in particular, considerations of safety. I am sure that the noble Lord is also aware that we have made a particular effort at Otterburn in opening the Coquet valley to public access, which was not available previously.
The noble Lord quoted me as using the word "refinement". We are already in constructive discussion with the Northumberland National Park Authority at an official level. We hope that proposals which will be both acceptable to the national park authority as the planning authority and consistent with the needs of military training will emerge from the environmental impact assessment.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that a substantial increase in dry training was being considered as part of the Otterburn proposals and that that has now been rejected? Can he also confirm that there are no proposals now for an increase in that form of training?
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, does the Minister recall that when a similar Question was asked about Otterburn on 8th December 1992 he responded that he hoped that his department would co-operate fully in any public inquiry which might ensue? Does he still take that view? Is there any reason why there should not be a public inquiry? Is he aware, for example, that, although there may be some lessening of impact in some ways, there 137 is a serious need to strengthen the roads to take these new weapons, which are much too heavy for the existing roads, and that this is a very unsuitable exercise for a national park?
My Lords, the noble Baroness, I know, has taken a consistent interest in the subject. She will be as aware as I am that, of the total area of the national parks, no more than 3 per cent. is used for military training and no more than 2 per cent. for live firing.
It is my department's policy to co-operate fully with any public inquiry which affects its activities. We do not yet know whether there will be a public inquiry. Much, I suspect, will depend on the reaction of the national parks authority to our notice of proposed development.
§ Lord Wyatt of Weeford
My Lords, will the noble Viscount agree that the reason why Salisbury Plain is such a wonderful, untouched area is that the Army uses it for a gunnery? That is one of the many beneficial effects of having a strong Army.
My Lords, not only do I agree with the noble Lord, but I was delighted to be able to accompany the chairman of National Heritage last Friday to Salisbury Plain and with great pleasure to listen to him most eloquently putting the same point to television interviewers.
§ Viscount Ridley
My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the Army was in occupation of the Otterburn ranges some 38 years before national parks were conceived; and without the Army there would not now be a national park in Northumberland?
My Lords, certainly the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, is in a position to speak with greater authority on this subject than almost anyone in your Lordships' House. I, for one, should be only too happy to accept that assurance as being one upon which we can rely.
§ Lord Redesdale
My Lords, as one who lives almost on the verge of the Otterburn training area, will the Minister confirm or deny whether the Ministry of Defence is considering compensating property owners for structural damage caused within one and a half miles of the firing point of the AS-90? The point is causing considerable worry in the valley. Will he confirm also that the AS-90 can be heard up to 10 miles away? That might give some indication of the way in which such firing upsets the quiet.
My Lords, the noble Lord will be as aware as I am that there are standard practices for compensation claims—including claims for structural damage as a result of noise—which my department follows and has followed for many years. Those standard practices will continue for Otterburn as they do for every other part of the Ministry of Defence's activities.
He will also be aware that one of the reasons why firing the AS-90 on the Otterburn ranges will have less effect on populations than, for instance, on Salisbury 138 Plain is because far fewer people live in that area than in other parts of the country. That is a very good reason for choosing the area for Army training, as I am sure the noble Lord will acknowledge.
§ Lord Marlesford
My Lords, I fully recognise that it is essential that our military forces have proper training facilities. I recognise, too, the contribution to conservation which the military have made in the use of national parks. Nevertheless, does the Minister agree that, in terms of public access—that is what national parks are really about—the presence of the military in national parks is a necessary evil? As a quid pro quo for the greater use of the Otterburn Northumberland national park facility, will he, at least, consider releasing some of the Dartmoor facility, which is much more heavily used? Will he consider further rationalisation to make more of Dartmoor available to the public?
My Lords, I 3m grateful for the tribute that my noble friend pays to the contribution to conservation of the Army in particular—a tribute which I believe is richly deserved. He will also be aware, as I am, that, although there is a clear read-across in the Army between different areas for exercising, much of the Army is still stationed in the South of England. That is one of the reasons why we have to continue to maintain Dartmoor for military exercise. I can perhaps give my noble friend some comfort. We hope to have stopped live firing on Dartmoor by 1998.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, is it not the case that the Government intend to appoint independent consultants to carry out an environmental impact assessment? Who are those independent consultants? How much will they be paid?
My Lords, I am not yet able to tell the noble Lord, Lord Williams, who those independent consultants will be. As soon as I am in a position to do so, I shall, with your Lordships' permission, write to the noble Lord and place the answer in the Library of your Lordships' House. It therefore follows that the amount the consultants will be paid will also be available to your Lordships and to the noble Lord, Lord Williams. This information Will very shortly be forthcoming, because we expect the report reasonably soon so that we can make an application to the national parks authority along the lines that I described.